Neil Potter, doyen of the oil industry press corps, has died at 88.
Potter was one of the great journalistic survivors, and he remained at his keyboard till the very end. Although terrier-like at press conferences – Potter would not let oil company executives get away with anything – he was a personally unassuming man, who always remained polite, confident in the encyclopaedic knowledge acquired in his years in the business. To his colleagues he was ‘the Oilman”.
There had been printers’ ink in his veins even before oil. His father, Horace William Potter, worked for the Daily Mail in Manchester for 30 years, including a stint as northern editor. After Manchester Grammar School, Potter – the youngest of three brothers – cut his teeth in the Manchester offices of the Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror before his career was interrupted by the war.
Captured in Singapore as a 22-year-old signaller, he was among the allied PoWs drafted as slave labour to work on the Burma/Siam railway. The railway completed, Potter, even then a survivor, was transferred to a mine on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, avoiding the fate of tens of thousands of PoWs who perished when the Americans – by now in control of the shipping lanes – torpedoed their transport ships.
After the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the camp commandant announced that Japan had surrendered and gave the prisoners the rest of the day off. As Potter told it, the PoWs were so exhausted and starving that it did not occur to them that ‘getting a day off’was in any way an inappropriate reward for winning the war, so they went quietly back to their huts. When it finally dawned that everything had changed, the PoWs tentatively suggested that the prisoners were now entitled to an equal share of what little food was available. This was agreed: Both captors and captives were severely malnourished, and the final days of captivity were remarkably free of acrimony.
After repatriation via Manila and crossing Canada, Potter rejoined the Mirror in Liverpool and later worked for the Liverpool Daily Post and Evening Echo. This was followed by 14 years on The Daily Telegraph in London, during which he reported from Sandringham on the death of King George VI, winning special praise from then editor Cleveland Stevens. While at the Telegraph, he authored three authoritative books on the giant ‘Queen’ocean liners – the Mary, Elizabeth and the QE2. He then switched to television, working as a producer at Southern Television.
Next stop was two years running publicity for the North of England Development Council in Newcastle. His final change of direction – in the pioneering days of the North Sea oil and gas industry – gave him the speciality that lasted nearly 40 years until his death. He worked for the magazine Petroleum Times and The Oilman newsletter, including stints as editor. In 1994, he joined the FT newsletter North Sea Letter, developing a brief far beyond his role as Norwegian correspondent.
Potter always encouraged young journalists, deriving great pleasure from explaining the industry to newcomers and swapping stories about it, and genuinely enjoying their company. He also freelanced, ‘stringing’for a wide variety of publications, and wrote books. By the time of his death, he was celebrated as the undoubted elder statesman of the close-knit oil industry press pack, held in high esteem both by colleagues and by the oil executives whom he so rigorously grilled.
Neil Potter, journalist and author, born 7 October 1919, died 12 January 2008. He is survived by his daughter Jennifer, son Michael and long-term partner Patricia.
First published in The Independent on 12 March 2008